Can ESPN Tolerate Free Speech?

Free speech in America has taken another hit. No, this time it wasn’t an edgy college professor whose lecture drew the ire of administrators. Nor a shock jock who partook in one of the “seven dirty words.” Not even a left-wing flash mob reading of the First Amendment near Ground Zero. This time, the cause of free speech was carried forward by a rotund baseball announcer so grumpy that his on-air catchphrase is “I don’t like anybody.”

For the past three years, Peter Pascarelli made up one half of the most entertaining baseball show on radio. To the delight of baseball fans throughout the world, Pascarelli bounced his visceral cynicism off straight man Erick Karabell once a week as part of ESPN’s podcast show Baseball Today. Two weeks ago, Pascarelli’s free-wheeling style got him bounced right off the show.

It seems that the Milwaukee Brewers have decided to pay homage to ex-owner and current Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Bud Selig by constructing a statue of him in his honor. This is an event so ludicrous, so self indulgent, so representative of all that is wrong in baseball today that it begged for Pascarelli to indulge in his cynical black arts. Near the end of the show, he suggested that the Selig statue would serve best as “…a good target for pigeons all over Wisconsin.”

Pure Pascarelli! Most baseball announcers tread lightly, fearful that an honest assessment of a player, manager or team might spell the end of their career prospects. As a result, baseball commentary usually oscillates between bland nothingness and home-town rooting. Not so for Pascarelli. He is a baseball insider unafraid to speak the truth, regardless of the popularity or power wielded by his subject. In fact, popularity and power seem to attract the most stinging rebukes from the mouth of this sports announcing enigma.

Karabell, his partner, was there to pick up the pieces. Always smoothing out the edges of a nasty comment about A-Rod or a dig on the Mets management. But, nothing could help this time. A forced confession, in 1930s Soviet show trial style, was delivered on-air the following week by a humbled Pascarelli. And then, much like any authoritarian political regime, he was disappeared. Gone at the order of ESPN management, certainly either under orders or pressure from the commissioner’s office.

To make matters worse, he was replaced by Seth Everett, a reporter drone undoubtedly selected for the fact that he once worked in the Commissioner’s office. Karabell attempted to solider on, providing an uncomfortable note of thanks to Pascarelli and the clearly false explanation that he had “moved on to work on other projects at ESPN.” The rest of the show was an excruciating experience in political correctness, with Everett and Karabell pledging to be edgy and critical, yet offering mostly vanilla observations.

Peter Pascarelli made me laugh. He said what is on the minds of real baseball fans when we gather for a beer or sneak in a conversation during the work day. He was our voice. His honesty, his cynicism and his clear passion to defend the way the game should be played, provided some hope for honesty in era where baseball has gone corporate. Silencing his voice diminishes our national pastime and moves us one more step away from freedom of speech and the press. Bring back Pascarelli!

BILLY WHARTON is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine.